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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Don’t Abuse The Muse



“Music is supposed to make you feel good, right? “

This comment came up in a social media feed. I almost didn’t give a second thought, but something tugged at my mental sleeve. Music is such a huge part of the day to day routine that it is too easy to take it for granted. The implication is that anything which provides or promotes anything other than no anxiety, no discomfort, no challenge, or requires no emotional investment or commitment is within itself ‘good’.

Does this mean that music that is capable of making you feel a strong emotion, empathy, ire or discontent is not good?

The more I thought about this assumption, the more absurd it became. The exclusion of such a vast expanse of communication and emotional range is, artistically, criminal. What would be more correct is, ‘Good music is supposed to make you feel, right?’

Some music will definitely make you feel good. That is what made and keeps Pop music popular. That cannot be denied. But that is not the be-all and end-all of the power of well written and well-performed music. Passion and commitment are essential. These things are what give it life and makes ‘good’ music great. If you want to just simply to feel good, look at a cat meme. 

Music is one of the most direct forms of communication that we have. It is maybe the most evocative of all the five senses. 

Even an instrumental passage can create vistas beyond the eye’s ability to see. It can give you the sensation of fevered goosebumps and adrenaline rushes. Such is the physicality of music. It can enhance memory and provide the soundtrack of your life. Music can make you cry, convey fear or suspense. It elevates you to the heavens! All this without even having lyrical content. Add lyrics to that primordial beginning and you have to power to change hearts and minds alike

Music is supposed to make you feel good, right? ” – wrong.

Music is supposed to make you feel!

That is my opinion. After all, when it comes down to personal beliefs or thoughts we are all essentially, on our own. These thoughts may strengthen and form into beliefs if we happen to find a group of people that feel and think the same way, but that is straying into the philosophical and I am trying to deal with a (perceived) reality.

Let us dispense of the yes or no, black or white approach. It is ridiculously restrictive. Don’t even consider shades of grey, as once again, it is too narrow a field. We need to embrace music with the full spectrum and range of living colour. If music is supposed to do anything at all, it is supposed to communicate. Sounds can be used to convey an illusion, a feeling or a memory. I was born in 1957 so my points of reference may seem a bit dated but the music of the time was hugely influential. It allows access to the most obvious examples and lets me stick to what I know. 

Take a band like The Beatles for instance Like all the big names and bands that came before them, Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra, Elvis for example. All their early hits were designed to make you feel good.  Even songs about potentially sad things like heartbreak, unrequited love, being down and out or just not fitting in. You share in the feeling of the relayed experience and suddenly, you are not alone. Music is a time machine, so let’s climb on board and go back to the 60s.  

I Want To Hold Your Hand or She Loves You are a good example to get started with.

The energy was palpable and the overall feeling a positive one, so you felt good when you heard it. I’m A Loser (same band, same era) was a negative story, but it still made you feel up or energised. Once again, because even if you related on a personal level, the delivery and drive made you feel good. You have points of contact and an overall feeling that life, even if not so good, someone at the top of the world can relate has been there some time, same as you.  There is comfort in that shared experience. Yesterday is a hugely covered song. A tale of loss, longing, and regret. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel good, but you can relate to the subject and arguably, may find consolation in its content without feeling ‘good’. 

Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks has an overwhelming sense of melancholy that manages to give you a very tangible sense of nostalgic melancholy for a time and place you never may experience. It is a very powerful song that you may relate to, but it is not really a ‘feel good’ song. 

Let’s skip ahead to the 70s. Berlin was a brilliant album by Lou Reed. It was and can be thoroughly depressing but it does not lessen its power or importance or fail as music. It conveys what it is meant to convey. Even if the most ‘feel good’ moments are those of a tired and ragged optimism like Perfect Day. it maintains and excels in musicality.  I believe music is not supposed to do anything other than communicating or convey thoughts and emotions. It is a conduit and a powerful one at that

Take the protest songs of Woodie Guthrie or Bob Dylan. At times scathing in their social or political commentary.  Sung out to enlighten or deliver a message of discontent. A call to arms.

At other times they may display a more reflective intimate set interpersonal politics that exist between human beings Those songs inspire or incite change socially or personally through they don’t necessarily make you feel good. What motivation is there if there is no questioning or challenging of the status quo?

As a songwriter myself I don’t aim at making ‘feel good’ music for the hell of it. I write about what is on my mind or in my heart. In my early days, I wanted to incite anger in order to effect change. For those of you that know of X, it is quite obvious”. It could be argued that you felt good about being pissed off and sharing it around, but that was a byproduct of the initial intent. Suck Suck and Revolution are two prime examples. But then you have an X song like Don’t Cry No Tears that actually makes some people cry. It offers a release that in the long run may offer relief in a shared experience. 

Recording executives all know the big money is in mindless catchphrases that mean little but if make you feel good because they don’t make you feel bad or offer no challenges to you. 

Now I should acknowledge there are bands that really do set out to bring you down. 

There is money to be made in negativity as well. But if someone is asking ”Shouldn’t music make you feel good/”, then these people have already opted out. 

During the depression of the 1930s, the music of tin pan alley was a very needed means of escape from reality. It offered up a fantasy world to escape into like Putting On The Ritz or Happy Days Are Here Again but also gave birth to songs like Buddy Can You Spare A Dime, which was written not with the intent to depress but to comment on just how bad things had become. Then there were songs like the notorious Gloomy Sunday… the most song that claims to be the ultimate soundtrack to suicide.

Songs, music, perhaps in their purest form are gateways to emotion. In their most exploitive they are simply a way to part you from your cash. From doo-wop to disco it was all about instant access. Don’t think, respond. The music of today is perhaps the most exploitive of all time. There will always be some degree of social commentary in modern music, but music in the main from an industry point of view is designed solely for mass consumption. It must disposable. It must recyclable. And to a degree forgettable. It must sound like what precedes and what it to follow to create a feeling of instant nostalgia.

The sonic quality is less due to sampling and compression and the movement away from the natural acoustic sound. Auto pitch correction and manipulation leech heart and soul out of the medium.

The whole debate over analogue versus digital is a very important one, but not today. 

Music is supposed to make you feel – feel like a wide range of emotions. It is a commentary of the life within and without ourselves. There is power in music as there is in all disciplines of the arts. There is truth in music and sadly there are lies. It is up to the discerning ear to tell the difference.